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- Caleb Kenna
- The first woman in the BEAM program on Middlebury College's campus
The Ross Dining Hall kitchen at Middlebury College was in full, midsemester swing on a recent afternoon. Servers carried steaming vats of food as prep cooks fished raw carrots from gallon tubs and chopped away. Amid it all, the dining team's newest employee calmly wheeled food to the walk-in coolers, then sat at her corner desk to order ingredients for the days ahead.
She was only six weeks into her new job with dining services — a position that requires the physical strength to off-load bulk goods and the organizational talent to coordinate complex orders — but her supervisors said they were impressed. Although she had no prior experience working in a commercial kitchen, she had already developed a more efficient system for organizing orders, they said.
Those supervisors were also among the few people in the kitchen who knew that she was fresh out of prison, where she served time for offenses including selling heroin.
The woman, who wore a stud in her nose and an easy smile, asked not to be identified by name to protect her privacy. She is the first participant in a trial program intended to lower the barriers that imprisoned women face as they reenter society. The program, Building Employment and Meaning, or BEAM, chose her for the trial because of her commitment to succeeding outside prison and her honesty about the challenges she faces.
"At first I was like, 'Oh, God, I'm not going to be able to do this,'" she said. "But [my supervisor] did an awesome job training me, and now I feel pretty comfortable."
Plus, she said, the desserts her coworkers make on the job are pretty tasty. Not a bad perk.
BEAM will work with women who are leaving the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, Vermont's only prison for women. The program is based on the belief that, to succeed, former prisoners need help not just with a job but also with housing, transportation and underlying issues, such as substance-use disorder.
"It's not just: OK, let's get people work. Let's give them some housing. It's: Let's have some kind of supportive intervention at every single step in the process. Let's stay with them the whole way through to give them the best chance at success," said Daryn Forgeron, marketing director at Working Fields, a staffing agency that helps people get and keep jobs despite criminal convictions.
The program's partners — Vermont Works for Women, the Department of Corrections and Middlebury College — say they hope other Vermont employers can replicate this holistic approach. The timing for this experiment is opportune: As employers cope with a post-pandemic struggle to find workers, BEAM offers an alternative model for recruiting and retaining staffers.
Vermont Works for Women, a statewide nonprofit, conceived of BEAM after hearing about the difficulties women faced in finding safe places to live upon their release. Existing programs, such as the Department of Corrections' transitional housing initiative, were restrictive and seemed to address only part of the challenges women face when leaving prison.
In 2022, the state designated $300,000 to Vermont Works for Women in a bill geared toward workforce training. This is the first year of a three-year pilot. The college was chosen because it was willing to be flexible with background checks and other elements of the hiring process, according to Rhoni Basden, executive director of Vermont Works for Women.
Middlebury has struggled for months to find employees for its dining halls and kitchens. It seemed like a natural fit, said Laura Carotenuto, the college's assistant vice president of human resources.
"We can pursue our goals for inclusive hiring in a mutually beneficial way, especially given the challenges that we have experienced, as have other employers, in staffing shortages," she said.
Vermont Works for Women has rented a home for the new employees, in hopes that providing safe, convenient housing would help the participants succeed. It's just a 15-minute walk from the Middlebury campus and has four private bedrooms. The women who participate will be able to make some decisions themselves, including choosing the color of their sheets and what kind of shampoo they will use.
Small, personal decisions such as these help restore the dignity and sense of self-worth of participants, according to Ashley Messier, reentry services program manager at Vermont Works for Women, who has served time in prison herself.
Messier will work one-on-one with BEAM participants to create customized care plans aimed at addressing the underlying issues and challenges that they face. She will coordinate everything from therapy treatments and recovery programs to doctor's appointments and home visits. "It's wraparound services that actually get to the root of the issue," Messier explained. She connected BEAM's first participant with recovery resources and helped her set up a bank account.
Science backs the approach. "The research shows that people who end up giving up crime, it's because someone believed in them and gave them a reason to feel optimistic," said Kathy Fox, professor of sociology and director of the Liberal Arts in Prison Program at the University of Vermont, which provides opportunities for incarcerated women.
BEAM focuses on fostering that sense of trust and renewed self-worth. "It doesn't matter what the situation is, I know I can go to her," the food service worker said of Messier. "She isn't going to look at me funny or judge me because this is what I'm dealing with. That makes me want to do good."
A second BEAM client will start work at Middlebury in the coming weeks. Vermont Works for Women hopes to expand BEAM to other locations in the state, and a number of potential employers have expressed interest.
Basden feels confident that the current participant can thrive in BEAM. But she fears that the woman won't be able to find affordable housing in the area once she is out of the program and that eventually her salary will disqualify her from benefits that she relies upon.
But as Gov. Phil Scott proposes a new women's prison in the state's capital budget — estimated to cost over $70 million — BEAM offers a different kind of investment. UVM's Fox thinks BEAM could shrink the state's prison population by reducing recidivism, thus saving Vermont money.
"I'm a huge believer, based on the research, that taking a chance on people is worth the effort," Fox said. "It's really in society's best interest to try to welcome people back and try to help them as they reenter."
BEAM's first client has set clear goals for herself: finding her own place and regaining custody of her 12-year-old son, whose picture sits on her desk in the dining hall kitchen. She said she is glad to be in a new environment far from Rutland, her hometown, a place she now associates with her past life.
She's grateful for the opportunity. "A lot of people aren't willing to work with somebody who's done the things that I've done," she said.
If the experiment succeeds, Middlebury might benefit as well, gaining a permanent, loyal employee. "I love my hours. I love my coworkers," the new staff member said. "When the program is done, I want to stay in this area, close to my job."
Corrections, March 8, 2023: Vermont Works for Women is renting a home in Middlebury for BEAM; it does not own the home. Also, UVM's Liberal Arts in Prison Program does not offer classes to inmates. A previous version of this story contained errors.